February 23, 2013
"Slingshot Ouroboros: The Poetics of The Notebook" by Kate Colby
If there’s a theme to my work, it’s reflexiveness. It’s beyond reflexiveness. It’s the trite-and-true self-self-reflexiveness of standing between two mirrors, receding from and into one. Toward that end, which is not an end, but a perpetual process of self-digestion and evacuation, I often quote my own poems. It’s a part of the hammering home (“a weary, insistent banging”).
What I am trying to access, though, is not myself, but everything other than. I’m a slingshot Ouroboros (“I mean I’m a rebar Medusa”) and my impetus is language. Thus, the images of pocking, peppering, punching through this self-healing wall that runs through and around my poems. And while the sledgehammer might not bring down the house, it can still put a decent hole in the drywall.
The sloggery is addictive. I swing the hammer again and again and again for the momentary thrill of poking through to the other side and getting a glimpse of the extra-linguistic conditions that might exist there—some kind of vestigial memory or form of perception that can’t be caught with words. Whether it’s a state more like presence or absence I can’t say. But I have a sense that I can only get there by saying—exhausting myself via words, exhausting words.
The tricky thing, of course, is the wall is made of the rocks being shot at it. Word against word, bone to bone. John Henry’s hammer made of mountains. We’re all doing it—doing what we’re doing while talking about doing it and here I am in so many words. Jabbing my pen-extended-finger not at something that can’t be described, but at my faith in the existence of what can’t be described. I’m not entirely clear what it is I’m not describing, but I’ve described it as the brief bouts of weightlessness in parabolic flight.
While the topics I take on in my work are diverse, the whole writing endeavor feels of a piece and each individual poem or work but a version of an only indirectly effable set of conditions or sensibilities. The conditions might be fundamental or not and may or may not actually exist. Maybe I just want them to. There’s no baseline version of what I’m stabbing at—all versions are only relative to and moving away from one another, like dots on an inflating balloon. With each I try to mortally puncture the surface, but the holes heal up, become, at best, niggling paper cuts. My religious hope is to one day effect a compound fracture with the aggregate.
I recently wrote a long poem called “I Mean”—a fifty-page string of consecutively self-supplanting statements beginning with “I mean”—that originally featured The Notebook, the tear-jerking 2004 film starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, as its linchpin, but I later took all references out because they felt cheap. The story is narrated as a series of flashbacks onto the drawn-out, dramatic courtship of a beautiful young man and woman during the 1940s. The intermittent present-day scenes take place in a nursing home, where an older man reads a diary containing the love story to an older woman who has lost her memory. She is entertained by the story, but not sure why it’s being read to her.
Over and over again, he reads her own account of their love story to her until she has a momentary breakthrough of lucidity wherein she remembers who he is, they slow-dance together until she forgets again, starts screaming, and is hauled back to her room for more meds. The film’s conceit, which isn’t revealed until toward the end, is that, of course, this is the elderly woman’s own diary, and this man is her onetime lover, longtime husband and father of her children. The ending has them die together in one another’s arms.
As an ars-poetic envelope, the “breaking through to lucidity” cliché feels useful. If it’s soap-operatic, so be it—the action is dramatic. Those moments of euphoric clarity that writing induces are what I live for (“I mean the moment / a woman exhales / and slides beneath / her mounds of bubbles”). I feel shame for making these references, but maybe cheapness is a way through the wall. The Notebook is notorious for inducing weeping (yes, I did), and if I could put my finger on and employ in writing what it is, exactly, that unlooses the mind and adheres the body to what is the matter, then I could happily die in my own arms.
While each puncture wound I inflict on the retaining wall of my consciousness heals, beginning again doesn’t feel like Sisyphusian drudgery. Maybe it’s a matter of practice, by which I don’t mean that writing myself out of the word-bound world gets easier each time (thank God), but that I have a clearer sense of where it is I’m trying to get to, even if the parameters of that place are no more clear. The floating just feels more right with each parabolic nosedive.
The scale of language is human, and humans do not exist on a comprehensive scale. What I can do is to leave you with this film-y image that begins on the living room couch and zooms out into the cosmos.
I want to collapse into the couch. Fold into forever, like an infinite origami fortune teller. “I will die with this hammer in my hand.” Swinging at the mountain, my own image chiseled into it. We finish each other’s sentences, me and this thing I’m slow-dancing with.
Kate Colby is author of four book of poetry, including Fruitlands (Litmus Press, 2006), which won the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award in 2007. Other published works include Beauport (Litmus Press, 2010) and The Return of the Native (Ugly Duckling Press, 2011). In 2013 she was awarded a fellowship from the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts. She is a founding board member of the Gloucester Writers Center in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where she also runs a quarterly poetry series. She lives and works primarily in Providence, RI.